Fight Poverty. Fight Harder.
People living on the fringes of society fill the lobby of Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) every time the doors open.
Tired refugees, homeless veterans, and struggling families come to the agency’s Thornhill Drive campus seeking food, shelter, or the resources to merely exist.
“We see it every day at Catholic Charities — the toxic stress that poverty brings,” said Heather Reynolds, the organization’s CEO since 2005. “It robs families of their dignity and potential that we take for granted.”
But seven years ago, the consequences of poverty became personal for the career social worker. That’s when Reynolds and her husband, John, traveled to Taiwan to meet their new daughter, Olive. The high school sweethearts always considered adoption part of their future.
After spending time with the 10-month-old baby at her foster home, the couple decided to meet Olive’s birth mother, grandfather, and aunt at the adoption center. Reynolds called the encounter one of the most important moments of her life.
“I knew I wanted to meet and thank them for choosing life,” she explained.
While the Chinese family showered the Texans with gifts for the baby and treated them to pineapple baked goods — a cultural symbol of hospitality — Olive’s birth mother spoke to the new parents in English. Knowing the child would go to an American family, the 16-year-old learned the language to communicate, in her own words, the hopes and dreams she had for her daughter.
“She wanted her to be loved, to learn to read, and be who she was intended to be,” Reynolds said, recalling the heartfelt conversation. “What I realized in that moment was how much the birth mother loved her.”
Already struggling financially, the family confided that raising the baby wasn’t an option because they were too poor.
“So, in the poverty of this little girl’s family, I became a mother,” she observed, acknowledging the weight of their sacrifice.
Today, Olive is a happy, healthy seven-year-old looking forward to another move and new adventure. After a successful 17-year tenure at CCFW, Reynolds and her family are moving to South Bend, Indiana where she will become the managing director of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame. In that position, the dedicated administrator will help design and evaluate the impact of anti-poverty programs in the U.S.
For the past five years, LEO has partnered with CCFW to study the agency’s thriving Stay the Course program. The mentoring project offers low-income community college students a promising future by helping them manage family and financial obstacles that cause many to drop out of school.
“We cared about that because in order to get people out of poverty, they need a living wage,” Reynolds explained. “In order to get a living wage, they need a skill and the best place to learn that skill is a community college.”
What started as a 17-person CCFW program grew to 400 participants during the Notre Dame study and will grow to serve 3,400 students over the coming years.
“We were able to take an idea, study it, scale it, and get students to these middle-skill positions that employers need so much in this area,” the 38-year-old TCU graduate continued. “That’s been my proudest moment — giving people a life outside of poverty.”
Growing up in a stable home with loving parents, Reynolds never worried about her own safety or security. Lessons in what it meant to be poor, hungry, and homeless came during her years at Mount St. Mary Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Little Rock, Arkansas.
She credits two teachers for shaping her views on social justice. Sister Terry, RSM, spent much of her life outside the classroom working with the homeless.
“The stories she would tell about loving people were so inspirational to me,” recalled Reynolds, who considers the sister one of her heroes. “Her insight on how to love the people who are sometimes ignored by society was really formative in my life.”
Another educator, Mary Logan, taught historical events in a way that instilled an understanding of social justice. She also led study abroad experiences so students could visit places like Beijing, China and Eastern Europe.
“Seeing the effects of a communistic culture and the dreariness that came with it was moving to me,” Reynolds recounted. “Visiting Auschwitz was life changing. I saw how culturally, across the world, people could be devalued.”
Mount St. Mary girls spent part of the day working as community volunteers and “I got excited about that space of time,” the alumna added. After changing her major several times at TCU, Reynolds decided a career in social work was the best way to indulge her passion for volunteering. She joined CCFW as a 22-year-old intern studying for her master’s degree and, three years later, was tapped to assist the organization’s CEO, Karen Spicer. When Spicer died a few weeks later in 2005, Reynolds was named interim director and, eventually, director. At the age of 25, she became responsible for the agency’s $8 million budget and 150 employees.
Undaunted by the magnitude of the job, the young, determined leader surrounded herself with experienced co-workers.
“I had to do that. When you become a CEO, if you are going to have any degree of success, you have to surround yourself with people who know more than you and are better equipped in some areas,” Reynolds pointed out. “I’ve never been afraid to have strong, amazing people around me. That’s what allowed this organization to grow.”
And grow it has. Recognized nationally for its innovative strategies and holistic approach to case management, CCFW now assists tens of thousands of people each year in a 28-county area with help from 400 employees and a $45 million budget. A successful $16 million capital campaign in 2010 helped build the Fischer Family Campus which houses the agency’s offices, a food bank building, and foster care facility. During the 2014 border crisis, the organization sheltered unaccompanied minors and last year aided families after Hurricane Harvey.
For 13 years, Reynolds spearheaded the non-profit’s goal to end poverty one family at a time. That mission will not only continue but improve, she promised.
“This organization has never been about me. I’ve just been entrusted with it for a bit of time,” the CEO emphasized. “For 17 years I’ve gotten to walk through the doors of a place where I get to make a difference with some of the most talented, compassionate people on earth. I’m going to miss that.”